Born Margaret Elizabeth Noble in a Catholic Christian family in Ireland, Sister Nivedita (28 October 1867-13 October 1911), was an Irish educator, author and social activist who dedicated her life to social work and spreading education in India after becoming a disciple of Swami Vivekananda.
Till this day one of India’s most influential female figures, Sister Nivedita left her friends and family in 1898 to relocate to Calcutta at the invitation of Swamiji, who she had met for the first time three years earlier.
It was Swamiji who gave her the name Nivedita, meaning “dedicated to God”, when he initiated her into the vows of Brahmacharya on 25 March 1898.
The primary reason why Swamiji wanted her in India was to get her to work on spreading education in the country, especially among women.
On her arrival in January 1898, Sister Nivedita saw first-hand how deprived girls were of even the basic education and began working tirelessly to remedy this wrong, opening a girls’ school in the Baghbazar in Calcutta in November 1898.
But the journey was not easy. Donations were not forthcoming, forcing her to go on a lecture tour in England and America to raise the required funds.
Plus, lack of finances was not the only obstacle to her dreams. Not only was there a deep-seated opposition to the idea, most people in 20th century India were so constrained financially that educating their daughters seemed like a luxury.
So while she worked on collecting funds, Sister Nivedita also began going from home to home giving formal lessons to girls, apart from teaching them sewing, elementary rules of hygiene and even nursing. Many of her students were widows and adult women.
Apart from education, Sister Nivedita also immersed herself in social work, working towards improving the lot of Indian women across castes.
A year after her arrival in Calcutta, when the city witnessed an outbreak of plague, Sister Nivedita launched and supervised a cleanliness drive in affected localities, inspiring youths to join her in offering voluntary service. She also personally nursed and took care of the afflicted and inserted appeals in English newspapers seeking financial support for her relief activities.
Sister Nivedita was a friend to many intellectuals and artists including Rabindranath Tagore. And when she took up the cause of Indian independence, her friend circle expanded to include Sri Aurobindo as well.
Sister Nivedita passed away in Darjeeling on 13 October 1911. Her epitaph reads, “Here lies Sister Nivedita who gave her all to India”.